Saturday, May 10, 2008

Built for Speed

Ages ago, I remember seeing a brief documentary on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" about how crayons were made. Row after row of gleaming, cooling wax travelled down an assembly line in shades no rainbow had ever boasted and I thought that was the most impressive explosion of color I would ever see. But a box of 64 crayons has nothing on ...

Speed Racer (d. Andy and Larry Wachowski)

Based on the proto-anime Japanese cartoon of the 1960s, Speed Racer is the latest effort from the men who brought us the Matrix trilogy. Imagine the highway chase in the second Matrix movie expanded to 130 minutes and you'll have some idea how Speed Racer plays. The Wachowski brothers slather the screen with fast-moving vehicles careening impossibly across candy-colored rollercoaster raceways. Unfortunately, the cars all manage to have more personality than anyone driving them.

Leading the way among the personality-challenged is Emile Hirsch as the prophetically named Speed, who grows up to be quite speedy. Kinda makes me want to name a kid "Billionaire Moneybags." Hirsch delivered 2007's finest performance (sorry Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard) in Sean Penn's Into the Wild, but here, eclipsed by the epilepsy-inducing graphics, he fades blandly into the background, little more than a helmeted head bobbing about amidst the pixels.

It's instructive to have this movie playing in theaters at the same time as the equally overcast Iron Man. Where Jon Favreau's movie gives his actors places to stretch and relate, the Wachowskis use the tremendous talent assembled as merely a few more on-screen graphics for their banks of computers to zip around the frame. Distinctive performers like Christina Ricci, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon go tragically underutilized.

The story, as insubstantial as the green-screen effects, concerns the attempts by one Mr. Royalton to coax Speed away from his Mom-and-Pop racing team to the Royalton corporate racing conglomerate. When Speed resists, the races become more and more rigged and lethal.

As Royalton, Roger Allam (from a very different role in The Queen) is the only member of the main cast who finds the right tone for this crazed material. He manages to be big and hammy while also providing some moments of genuine menace. Still even he is hard to remember once the next bludgeoning race sequence begins.

And that's the main problem here. As much as I can admire the experimentation of the computer images and the fact that the Wachowskis are willing to push the technology past any previous limits, the overall effect for an audience is numbing. It's not just that the laws of physics are ignored -- I could get behind that. It's that there's no humanity allowed into the story or the competition or anywhere else. So all we have are relentless, endless sequences of shiny things flashing past, with bright colors bursting here and there.

Plus it's at least one act too long. For a movie about going fast, Speed Racer takes forever to cross the finish line.

As an infinitely hued contraption, Speed Racer is an interesting experiment. As a movie for an audience, it's a cross-country endurance test.

2 stars.

1 comment:

SurveysCenter said...


John and Dave talks Oscar nomination predictions